South African troops in the DRC, Mozambique at risk without helicopter maintenance contract

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South Africa has deployed its troops into Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) without renewing a maintenance contract needed to keep its essential attack and transport helicopters flying, Bloomberg reports.

A so-called fixed-cost contract between state arms company Denel and the Department of Defence — which covers the expenses of technicians and engineers — lapsed more than four months ago and hasn’t been renewed. That jeopardizes the SA military’s ability to protect about 4 000 troops it’s deploying to fight jihadists in Mozambique and rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with its Oryx transport helicopters and Rooivalk attack helicopters.

The contract lapse is evidence of how South Africa’s peacekeeping ambitions are being mismatched by a budget that’s struggling to finance everything from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to port and power plant overhauls, Bloomberg reported.

While South Africa has sent troops into the DRC as part of a Southern African Development Community mission (SAMIDRC) since December, the 2 900-strong deployment was only announced on 12 February by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office, drawing criticism from opposition political parties.

Last week, an M23 rebel mortar attack killed two South African soldiers deployed with SAMIDRC and injured three, while earlier this month an Oryx on a medical evacuation flight was hit over 40 times by small arms fire, injuring two on board. The Oryx was operating without Rooivalk escort, as the Rooivalks in the DRC have not flown for the last year due to maintenance and funding issues.

South African troops in Mozambique were deployed in 2021 as part of the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) and are due to leave later this year. Islamist violence in Cabo Delgado province has increased recently, casting doubt on the SAMIM withdrawal timeline.

The Oryx and Rooivalk are flown only by South Africa and require specialist skills and special equipment to remain flyable, with Denel the only feasible contractor as it is the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

In October, Defense Minister Thandi Modise said only five of 39 Oryx were functional and R2.5 billion was needed to restore the fleet. She added that three of 11 Rooivalk could fly “with restrictions,” and the helicopters’ avionics systems were obsolete.

Denel Aeronautics CEO Mike Kgobe told Bloomberg that it hasn’t been paid by the Air Force for further Oryx and Rooivalk maintenance work.